Creativity is a staple in the sport of dance. From the first day of practice to the last beat in a performance, a routine is charged with innovation.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dancin' Off Broadway has taken creativity to a new level – its dancers will be featured on the drive-in movie theater’s screen in Long Prairie later this month.
In 2015, Mariya Kemper didn't think she'd be faced with distance regulations just years into taking over a dance studio. When Gov. Tim Walz announced the state would shut down in March, Dancin' Off Broadway shut its doors in Alexandria and Sauk Centre, its two locations.
"Initially, we thought it was going to be a couple of weeks. Then it became clear it was going to be longer than that," Kemper said. "We started Facebook and Instagram workouts to keep everybody in shape for a while. Then we decided to take it a step further."
Kemper and her staff coach classes for dancers ages 3-18. The groups range from recreational, ballet, competition and acrobatic. When COVID-19 hit, Dancin' Off Broadway was just a few weeks away from its yearly recital. Kemper had no choice but to postpone the studio's primary source of annual revenue.
"Shutting down completely was financially devastating," Kemper said. "I think we thought there was a chance that we could still do our May recital. When we postponed until August, we put recreational classes on hold. The recitals help us pay our rent, teachers and will really carry us for months."
In an attempt to save her business, Kemper joined an online group of studio owners around the state. They met twice weekly to bounce ideas off each other about what they can do to keep their heads above water.
"We started teaching classes on Zoom for half of the usual tuition rate," Kemper said. "This started back in April. Most kids got one class a week while the competition kids had two shorter practices a week. We started doing stretching and conditioning classes every Wednesday to keep them active. On Thursdays, we would do fun combo classes where they got to learn different kinds of dance. I think the kids really appreciated it."
COVID-19 restrictions put a halt on all area spring sports. For the Dancin' Off Broadway dancers, it started to take a toll on them.
"It was tough to get kids to participate," Kemper said. "The competition kids did OK. You can tell in that 9-12 age-range all the kids want to do is chat with each other. What was surprising was the older kids. At normal practices, we can't get them to stop talking to each other. But on Zoom, they would shut down. They weren't talking or interacting. It was really hard."
Dancin' Off Broadway decided to postpone their May recital to August, but Kemper wasn't sure what the state restrictions would entail. The studio decided that they couldn't bank on going back to normal by then, so they decided to pivot.
"We thought about how many dancers we had and all of their family members. There was no way we could hold a usual recital with any limit on the people that could come," Kemper said. "We called the drive-in at Long Prairie and asked how much it would cost to stream a recording of our recital at their venue so we could still have our recital and not worry about what the future restrictions looked like."
Recreational dancers went into the studio alone to perform their routines while competition dancers performed their small-group dances in front of a small, distanced audience at the Andria Theatre. The studio recorded each dance, which will be part of an edited video shown at the Long Prairie Drive-In Theatre July 27-29.
"The kids that recorded individually will be on the screen Brady Bunch-style," Kemper said. "The filming took nine days, and we had over 45 hours of video. We wrapped up with the filming in the first week of July. We are so excited to show people the hard work we put in as a studio. It's going to be different this year, but it's been so much fun."
Each night will be about two and a half hours long. During a typical year when there isn't a global pandemic, the studio puts the recital onto a DVD drive. This year's DVD will look different, but will still showcase the time each group put into its routine.
Kemper hopes that she's able to go back to normal at some point, but for now, she's thankful for her dancers and coaches in these rough times. Dancin' Off Broadway resumed in-person lessons at a lower rate with distance and sanitation measures. Parents are encouraged not to come into the studio.
"We don't know what it's going to be like in two months because it's impossible to plan out," Kemper said. "It's just really hard sometimes, but it's worth it. There's no accountability or correction for lessons on Zoom. We are so done with Zoom sessions. I think everybody is too."